Morality, ‘Real Justice’, and Income Inequality

there, for me, morality and justice diverge (then re-merge)

Stephen Yearwood
11 min readJun 15, 2024
Photo by Anna Auza on Unsplash

[For the record, I do have an M.A. in economics; my (published) Thesis was in the area of political economy, where economics and philosophy intersect and included aReview of the Literaturefrom the huge scholarly debate among academics concerningdistributive justicethat followed the publication of John Rawlss A Theory of Justice. (1971). More on my credentials in economics can be found inA Solution Exists” (a “5 min readhere in Medium but, as with all I publish here, not behind the paywall).]

The distribution of income — what it should be/how it should be attained—is central to any ideology. I am fond of insisting that I have no ideology.

Part of that is the definition of that term that I prefer: a set of ideas about how society should be governed based on one or more secular (as opposed to sacral) beliefs. With that definition an ideology can be more or less rigorous, expansive, etc. All that is necessary is for one to have one or more secular beliefs as its premise. One example would be a belief that all people are morally equal. Another example would be a belief that there is some inherent hierarchy among people, such that the people in one particular group are (the most) morally superior: not (necessarily) in the sense of being morally better individuals, but in the sense of having a transcendent standing of some kind that allows them—obligates them, actually — to rule over others (with other groups ranked hierarchically with respect to one another or not).

Both of those are beliefs some people hold. Both can be sacrally located, but both can also be completely secular. The former belief is associated with Liberalism/democracy, the latter with fascism/authoritarianism/totalitarianism. (Most certainly, there are forms authoritarian/totalitarian governance besides fascism.)

I discovered an ethic for governing the governance of society — to include the part about incomes — that does not involve any belief(s): a requirement for all people to respect the capacity of all other people to choose for themselves. That is the ethic of what I have come to call ‘real justice’. That’s because the whole of it — its determinant and its referents, as a philosopher would say— is located in (what we humans perceive as) material existence, i.e., the ‘real world’. That is why I can say I have no ideology.

Having said that, like all other people I do have beliefs. I do believe that it is morally wrong for anyone to have more than enough materially in a society if there are members of it who do not have enough materially. If all of a society’s members have enough, though, then I believe no good reason exists to impose any limit on income or wealth or to engage in any form of redistribution.

Beliefs are the basis of all moralities. All moralities have an ethical component: how people should treat one another. Since they are based on beliefs and do have an ethical component, ideologies are moralities. Real justice is an approach to governing the governance of society that is separate from any morality (whether secular/ideological or sacral/theological). It is important for this essay all that to be kept straight. [I hereby acknowledge that I lack the talent to make that easy to do.]

Regarding individuals, moralities can go beyond ethics, to people’s private acts and even thoughts and feelings, as well as actions that don’t involve other people but involve something beyond their own persons, such as how people treat animals, or the natural environment in general, etc. That unbounded applicability contributes to the totalitarian tendency of all ideologies — and, at least as much, theologies (if one of those is the basis of the governance of society). All people’s fear of any ideology that they oppose leading to a totalitarian society is justified. [‘Critical Theory’, initiated by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno soon after World War II, recognizes that all ideologies have inherent totalitarian tendencies, but does not attribute that to their being based on beliefs, as I do — but its proponents are unaware of real justice (and are therefore basing their own ideas as to how society should be governed on their own — secular — beliefs).]

Real justice, though, is limited to actions — actions undertaken to effect a choice — that involve at least one other person in any way. In a society governed by real justice, outside the domain of its ‘jurisdiction’ (actions undertaken in effecting any choice), people would govern themselves as individuals via personal morality.

Of course, all people would also be subject to the laws of the land. Those laws would be outcomes of the political process.

Real justice calls for a democratic political process. People’s participation in a democratic political process will inevitably be informed by beliefs they hold and moralities they embrace. So pretty much all potential outcomes of a democratic political process will be informed by beliefs—and opposed on the basis of differing beliefs. Those beliefs might be tied to an ideology or a theology (or not tied to either). In a society governed by real justice any outcome of the political process that would not itself violate real justice would be legitimate (though for any society with a written constitution that would also have to be taken into consideration).

The distribution of income is a societal outcome that is a vitally important issue for any set of ideas concerning the governance of society. In real justice differences in incomes, no matter how great, are not in themselves an injustice.

Morally, I do believe that there should be a link between the highest income and the lowest income in any organization with employees (business, government, or private not-for-profit). I would vote for the establishment of a version of Rawls’s “difference principle” (in A Theory). That says, in its simplest form, that no one can become better-off in society unless the least well-off also benefit. A micro-level version of that would be to establish for any organization with employees in it a ratio (say, 20:1) between the employee with the highest total compensation (including salary, benefits, and bonuses) and the lowest-compensated employee in it. (I just read somewhere that currently in the U.S. the average ratio of the highest paid employee (CEO) to the lowest paid employee in corporations is at an all-time high: 200:1.)

Of course, that would not address retirees and people who are unable to work. Real justice does call for a ‘democratically distributed income’, i.e., an income for which any (adult) citizen could become eligible. That follows from the observation that money is to the economy (the process of producing/acquiring goods/services — which is nothing but choices being effected) as political rights are to the political process (i.e., the process of effecting choices for the community as a whole).

I have developed a paradigm that would establish such an income — in an amount that a person could actually live on — without using taxes (or public debt) to fund it. It is of the utmost importance that in that paradigm that democratically distributed income would be implemented within the existing economic system. It could be fitted into the economic system of any nation. (It helps that at this point virtually every nation on the planet has the same system structurally — though functionality varies quite a bit.)

There are different iterations of the paradigm possible, but in all cases that income would be paid to retirees and adults (legally recognized as being) unable to work. In all cases, it could also be paid as easily as not to a (legally recognized) ‘primary caregiver’ in a household with one or more (legally recognized) dependent people living there (that same income, regardless of the number of dependents). A primary caregiver might be a parent or legal guardian or a person taking care of one’s mother or father. (With any parent also getting that income, it would be much easier for more people to take into their homes parents who were unable to live on their own.)

That paradigm would absolutely, positively eliminate unemployment and poverty for adult citizens of any nation that adopted the paradigm (which any nation could do). At the same time, that would be accomplished without redistributing anything and without imposing any limit on income or wealth — or imposing any cost on any employer.

The existence of a democratically distributed income would make the economy more just. In the paradigm I developed, for those eligible for the income — which, again, could be any adult citizen — it would be, not just guaranteed, but ‘bulletproof’, as the money to fund it would be created as needed (with, of course, built-in protections against there being too much money in the economy).

So, with real justice governing the structure and (sanctioned) functioning of the economy every adult citizen would be assured of having ‘enough’. In that way real justice does come back into alignment with my beliefs. (For the record, the existence of that income would not conflict with the aforementioned ratio on total compensation: it could still be put in place.)

While differences in incomes are of no concern for justice in real justice, how incomes are generated is a concern. That concern does require at least noting the ‘conditions of justice’ in real justice.

In real justice respecting the capacity of others to choose for themselves is, technically, the ‘definitive, sufficient, prescriptive condition of justice’. It tells us what we must do to act justly. It has no upper limit: people are free to be as respectful of others’ capacity to choose as they possibly can.

There is also in real justice a ‘minimum, necessary, proscriptive condition of justice’. It tells us what we must refrain from doing to be just enough when taking any action that involves at least one other person in any way when effecting any choice. It is this: any person’s involvement in any way when any choice is being effected must be sufficiently informed and voluntary.

That is asking a lot of people, but really it is not as onerous as it might first appear. It boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, withholding pertinent information, etc.) in effecting any choice. (Of those, “harming” particularly calls for more discussion, but, again, that need not detain us here.) Does anyone believe people should be allowed to do any such things to get what they want?

It does bear emphasizing here that the conditions of justice in real justice do apply to all choices (that involve in any way at least one other person). They not only apply to any choice one is effecting for oneself, but apply to any choice one is effecting for any other persons(s), or on behalf of any organization whatsoever (business, government, religion, etc.), or on behalf of any cause whatsoever (including the cause of real justice). There is no circumstance in which there can be any excuse for violating the minimum condition of justice in real justice (unless someone is being blatantly, explicitly, seriously coerced: ‘do this or you or some other people will be seriously harmed or killed’).

Wage slavery is a violation of the minimum condition of real justice. Wage slavery is people being paid to be used as machines — or draft animals — for the financial aggrandizement of others. Some wage slaves are paid to be ‘managing machines’ (‘overseers’). Some wage slaves are paid to be ‘thinking machines’. Some wage slaves are fabulously well-compensated. Still, in any organization, anyone employed in it who is getting less than the maximum compensation is being arbitrarily used to augment the compensation of any person(s) employed in it getting more than one is getting.

Even more unjust is arbitrarily withholding possible compensation for the sake of owners who are not also employed in the organization, such as an absentee proprietor or stockholders. The latter might be compensated with dividends but are always compensated if the price of the stock increases, which is most strongly related to profit, which is revenue minus costs, which “costs” include the remuneration of employees. So part of the rationale for less remuneration for employees is to generate more compensation for people who/organizations that do nothing but buy shares of stocks — almost always in the ‘secondary market’, at that, meaning that money does not go to the corporation, but to individuals who/organizations that happened to have bought the stock previously.

We can note here that, just as individuals can act more or less justly (re. the definitive, etc. condition of justice), an economy can be more or less just, depending on the extent to which its structure and (sanctioned) functioning accord with real justice. (A political process can only be just or unjust: democratic or not.)

In the paradigm I developed the democratically distributed income can be a minimum income. Beyond that minimum income, people’s wages and salaries (and benefits) would not be affected. (Except: the paradigm allows for the possibility of also eliminating all taxes, which would immediately boost the ‘discretionary income’, the amount of one’s income a person can choose to use however one wants, of everyone — including the richest among us — by at least around 30%).

To repeat, the existence of that income (again, at a level a person could live on and for which any adult citizen could become eligible) would make the economy more just. To make the economy yet more just that income could become the income for every employee of any business or government.

There could still be differences in compensation due to differences in benefits packages. In that case the economy would still be less than fully just.

If that distribution of that income — as the pay for every employee of any business or government — were combined with no benefits for any employee (or the same amount in benefits for every employee) the economy would be as just as it can be as far as the distribution of income is concerned.

Please note, however, that there would still be no limit on income/wealth. In all cases, all three possible iterations of this paradigm, there would still be other ways to generate an income. A person could be ‘singularly self-employed’, being neither the employer nor the employee of any other person, selling whatever good(s) or service(s) one produced for whatever one could get. There could also be partnerships, in which everyone working in the enterprise had an equal say in the distribution of compensation in it, producing any good(s) or service(s) for whatever they could get. Also, people could still get paid commissions for sales and be paid royalties on intellectual properties. There could even be an exception for any business with a democratic microdistribution of income: no employee would be paid that income, but a democratic procedure for deciding compensation in the business would exist (though such a thing that actually worked is more than a little difficult to imagine). Full disclosure: the rules regarding compensation do vary in the different iterations of the paradigm, but all of the above are available as sources of income in all iterations of it and in no case would there be any limit imposed on income. In every iteration of the paradigm there is access to unlimited income (and thereby unlimited wealth).

So real justice is not an ideology (much less a theology) because it involves no beliefs. It is not part of any morality, but it does contain an ethic for governing the governance of society. It calls for individuals to respect the capacity of all people to choose whenever any choice whatsoever is being effected. That leads to a democratic political process. It also leads to having a democratically distributed income — even though in real justice differences in incomes, no matter how great, are not in themselves an injustice. That income could be a guaranteed minimum income or it could be the income for every employee of any business or government (with or without different amounts of benefits for different people). Either way, there would be no unemployment of poverty for any adult citizen (and also possibly no taxes of any kind). In any iteration of the paradigm there would be ways of generating an income other than being an employee.


for more on real justice for governing the governance of society: “Can’t Get Any Simpler” (“2 min read” here in Medium with links to more essays about it)

for more about the economic proposal: “A Most Beneficial Economic Change” (“2 min read” here in Medium with links to more essays about it)

Again, nothing I publish in Medium is behind the paywall.



Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice